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How Do We Perceive Risk?

  • By David Ropeik
  • Posted 12.21.12
  • NOVA

On Sunday, December 16, 2012, two Topeka Kansas police officers were shot to death while investigating a suspicious vehicle, a Mississippi man was shot to death in a road rage-related incident, and five other shooting deaths were being investigated in New Jersey, Ohio, Michigan, and Illinois. Eight people murdered by guns in one day. But you probably didn't hear anything about them, nor about most of the other 15,000 Americans shot to death in 2012. Why not? And why are we hearing so much more about the shooting two days earlier of 26 people in Newtown, Connecticut? The complex and nuanced answer tells us a lot about the emotional way we perceive and respond to risk, both as individuals and as a society.

Part of the reason the Newtown tragedy was so upsetting was because 20 of the victims were defenseless young children. Pictures of the victims perfectly capture their innocence and tender age. Hearing President Obama read their names in his address in Newtown was heartbreaking. It is so unbearably tragic.

But where does that very real pain come from? Most of us don't know any of these kids or anyone in Newtown. They are as strange to us as the eight people shot to death last Sunday, for whom most of us feel no such pain. Why is this particular gun crime so heart-rending to people around the world?

Shared Dangers

The common pain comes, in part, from the fact that humans are innately more sensitive to anything that threatens or harms children than if the same risk only imperils adults. A risk to "future generations" is a risk to us all, a risk to the species. That makes a risk to kids—any kids—a shared danger that feels particularly threatening.

Other research into the psychology of risk perception has found additional factors that compound the emotional power of the Newtown shootings. One of them is the matter of scale and time frame. A risk that causes a lot of suffering or death in one place at one time, like the Sandy Hook shootings, is a "catastrophic" risk, and they worry us more than if the victims are spread out over space and time—a "chronic" risk—like those eight gun murders last Sunday. 

Threats to a large number of people frighten us more than risks to individuals. Enlarge Photo credit: © Ints Vikmanis/iStockphoto

That's one reason why plane crashes scare us more than the much more likely risk of dying in a car crash. Another, pertinent to what happened in Newtown, is that risks beyond our control frighten us more than if we feel we have some power over the circumstances. Those innocent young children, and the six heroic staff members at the school who were killed as well, had no way to protect themselves against the guns and the multiple 30-bullet clips Adam Lanza used to slaughter his victims. Powerlessness makes any risk feel scarier, and it's hard to think of a clearer example of a defenseless victim than a 6-year-old cowering in front of a maniac in combat clothes with a loaded semi-automatic rifle.

A Distinguishing Factor

You can hear this risk perception psychology in the way we have been responding to the Newtown massacre. The demand for gun control is now more intense than after any of the eight other mass gun murders in the United States in 2012. And the National Rifle Association, absolutist opponents of any limits on guns even after all those other mass murders, now says "the NRA is prepared to offer meaningful contributions to help make sure this never happens again." As Connecticut Representative John Larson said, "the loss of innocence and the age of the children" distinguishes this tragedy from so many others. 

President Obama emphasized the psychological factor of "catastrophic" risk in his statement the day of the massacre. "Since I've been President, this is the fourth time we have come together to comfort a grieving community torn apart by mass shootings," he said. "Whether it's an elementary school in Newtown, a shopping mall in Oregon, or a temple in Wisconsin, or a movie theater in Aurora…we're going to have to come together to take meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this."

Our sense of control will also play an important role in how we feel about Newtown.

Consider, too, how the desire for control is influencing people's reactions to Newtown. Some gun rights advocates have said that the way to protect kids in school is to arm teachers. The parents of a sixth grader in Utah sent him to school Tuesday with an unloaded handgun and ammunition so he could protect himself, and to give him—and his parents—a reassuring sense of control. Bullet-proof back packs are selling briskly. And in the face of possible future limits on the availability of assault rifles guns, gun sellers report that those weapons are flying off the shelves.

Our sense of control will also play an important role in how we feel about Newtown because of something called the cultural cognition of risk. Research has found that we shape our views so they agree with those in the groups with which we most closely identify. That way the group embraces us as a member in good standing, which is a key consideration for social animals like us that depend on our group and larger community for protection and well-being. (This is why various forms of social rejection, including the fear of flopping as a public speaker, always make the top ten "most afraid of" lists.)

Cultural Subtleties

Cultural cognition has found that people organize themselves into subconsciously defined groups based on our preferences for how society ought to operate. One of those groups, which researchers call individualists, prefer to live in a society that maximizes individual freedom and choice. Another is known as communitarians, who prefer a society that operates under more of a "we're all in this together" sort of approach. They advocate sacrificing some individual freedoms for the greater common good.

Regarding Sandy Hook, communitarians are likely to be more upset by the tragedy because that gut-wrenching feeling motivates them to fight more strongly for societal limits on individual gun rights, a communitarian view. Individualists, on the other hand, while still grieving the loss of the children, are likely to feel differently about Newtown because they don't want to magnify threats to individual rights or move away from the freer society that they prefer.

The massacre in Newtown needs no psychological deconstruction to explain why it feels so awful. But the lessons we can learn are informative because they illuminate how our attitudes about risk are informed not just by the facts, but how we feel about those facts. As valid as our feelings are, they sometimes contribute to personal choices and social policies that respond more to feelings than to facts, and that can challenge our ability to make the healthiest choices for ourselves and our kids, whether the risk is guns, climate change, food poisoning, or anything else.

David Ropeik is an Instructor at Harvard, a consultant in risk perception, risk communication and risk management, and author of How Risky Is it, Really? Why Our Fears Don't Always Match the Facts.

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